Bottoms Up

How Texans in Hollywood are overturning the traditional top-down content model.
Bottoms Up
What’s entertainment: The online series Pink (starring Natalie Raitano, above) is a deft example of old-fashioned storytelling.

Meet Natalie “Nate” Cross (Natalie Raitano), a tomboy by breeding (her father taught her to hunt animals when she would have much rather been playing with dolls) who’s now all grown up, with bee-stung lips, a yoga-rific body, a glow-in-the-dark-tattoo-covered back, and a reputation as one of the finest assassins around. In the Internet series Pink, co-created by the Dallas-based team of Blake Calhoun and Mike Maden, an incarcerated Nate strikes a Faustian bargain with the warden (Sheree J. Wilson): If she kills ten people on the warden’s mysterious hit list, freedom is hers. But that’s merely the beginning of a madly convoluted saga that leaps backward and forward in time to chronicle Nate’s tough-love childhood, her hopeful adolescence in foster care, her seemingly carefree college days, and her current plight, as a ruthless killing machine who would prefer to settle down and start a family of her own. The real marvel of Pink, however, is that such a surprisingly deft example of old-fashioned serial storytelling—a show whose multiple story lines and shifts from reality to fantasy could easily give Lost a run for its money—unfolds in three- and four-minute segments, to the sped-up, attention-deficient rhythms of the digital age, on the screen of your laptop or iPhone.

Welcome to the decidedly topsy-turvy entertainment industry circa 2009, in which film, TV, and media companies continue to wrestle with the same daunting questions: How do you adapt creative content to the Internet, with its community of users insistent upon controlling how that content is consumed and distributed? How will new talent be developed, when ad dollars and seed money are quickly migrating elsewhere? And, perhaps most essential, how do you make money on the Web, where just about everything is given away for free? For at least a handful of ambitious Texans, though, the answers to these questions aren’t necessarily dire. “The ultimate value resides in content,” says Jordan Levin, a University of Texas graduate and former CEO of the WB network who is the co-founder of Generate, a company that provided funding for the second and third seasons of Pink and has its hand in a number of similar Web serials (see “Spinning a Web”). “A lot of people were ascribing value to the technology. But at the end of the day, the technology is realized by content.”

Put it this way: We might very well have seen the last of big-budget, old-school Hollywood spectacles like Australia. If NBC’s recent decision to place Jay Leno on prime-time TV five evenings a week is any measure, hour-long dramas are probably also headed the way of the dinosaur. But efforts like Pink, or another Levin-produced project, Republicrats, suggest that classic storytelling isn’t dead just yet and that—more to the point—serious-minded artists will find a way to carry on, even as their tools continue to break down and reconstitute.

In the case of Calhoun, who has a second Web project, Exposed, premiering on WB.com this month, the filmmaker took a route that, certainly to those of us who spend our days evaluating the entertainment industry’s more conventionally developed product, sounds positively revolutionary. After writing and directing a number of low-budget features, he teamed up with Maden and conceived Pink. The script was written in May 2007; the first ten episodes were shot in July, in the Dallas—Fort Worth area, on high-definition digital video; the project was edited in August; and the first episode premiered on YouTube that September. (The show kicked off its third season in late January; in addition to WB.com, it can be viewed at hulu.com/pink-the-series and myspace
 .com/pinktheseries).

But this breakneck process didn’t result in something that feels slapdash and incoherent. Quite the opposite, Pink displays a freewheeling pop urgency that’s informed by but not burdened by the traditions of graphic novels, comic books, and music videos. (Imagine Kill Bill with all the boring stretches siphoned out.) And whereas its frequent time shifts would probably come across on television as jarring and confusing, on the Internet, broken up into easily digested, cliffhanger-reliant segments, Pink proves marvelously supple.

Part of me thinks, of course, that online is no place to consume entertainment, even of the most lighthearted sort: Because my home DSL connection is unpredictable, I ended up viewing the first two seasons of Pink on my desktop computer at the office. Mostly, though, the possibilities here seem elastic. I watched a rough cut of Exposed on DVD in my living room, where the relatively linear story, about a young man (Chase Ryan Jeffrey) trying to keep a very dark secret from his girlfriend, played just fine. With minimal tweaks, the eighty minutes or so of material could easily be transformed into a feature film. Calhoun says he’s also busy developing “meta-verse” for Exposed: Facebook pages for his characters, say, or “behind-the-scenes” video footage that one of the characters in the show is frequently seen recording. The idea is that viewers might encounter the program via many different platforms and that fans can immerse themselves in Exposed’s fictional universe and help to expand the mythology of that world.

As for the (literal) million-dollar question—how can work that is viewed for free online ever be financially viable?—well, according to both Levin and Calhoun, it’s all about keeping production budgets low (the average episode of Pink costs a few thousand dollars, compared with a few million for an episode of a network show), drumming up advertiser and sponsor revenue and thinking across multiple platforms. A show like Pink, theoretically, could be packaged as a DVD or adapted into a graphic novel or spun off into a video game or—if the gods of entertainment truly decide to smile down upon Calhoun—remade into a large-scale Hollywood action movie. The ride will be bumpy, and the risks will be considerable (Calhoun says he still hasn’t earned back the money he spent on the first season of Pink, much less been able to turn a profit). And it’s only going to get harder and

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